A Thousand Miles Up the Nile

thousand miles nileAmelia Edwards went to Egypt in the winter of 1873-74. She was already known for her novels and for a much-anthologized story called “The Phantom Coach,” and she intended to write about this trip. But what she saw changed her life. She wrote this vivid memoir of a long trip in a hired dahabiyeh (houseboat) — a thousand miles up the northern part of the Nile, from Cairo to Abu Simbel and back, with her own hand-drawn illustrations — and it became a runaway best-seller. For the rest of her life (another twenty years) she abandoned her other literary work in order to concentrate on Egyptology. She founded the Egypt Exploration Fund and lectured tirelessly on its behalf, traveling all over Europe and the United States to raise funds. She told the story no one else had told, of the threat to monuments that had lasted six thousand years, because of modern tourism and the frantic industry in “antiques.” She advocated for research and preservation. And it all began with this book.

A Thousand Miles Up the Nile was written in 1887, and no photographic plates accompany it. All along, from the first days choosing and outfitting the boat, to the days gliding along the banks and observing everyday life along the agricultural Nile, to the days at the great pyramids, to the days at Karnak and Luxor and their magnificent temples, to the final destination and the weeks spent at Abu Simbel, we hang on Edwards’s every word. Her descriptions are sometimes serene snapshots of a quiet moment, and sometimes noisy, jostling little videos of a scene:

[At Philae] As the boat glides nearer between glistening bowlders, those sculptured towers rise higher and ever higher against the sky. They show no sign of ruin or of age. All is stately, solid, perfect. One forgets for the moment that anything is changed. If a sound of antique chanting were to be borne along the quiet air — if a procession of white-robed priests bearing aloft the veiled ark of the god were to come sweeping round between the palms and the pylons — we should not think it strange.

And then:

The [bazaar] with its little cupboard-like shops, in which the merchants sit cross-legged like shabby old idols in shabby old shrines — the ill-furnished shelves — the familiar Manchester goods — the gaudy native stuffs — the old red saddles and faded rugs hanging up for sale — the smart Greek shops where Bass ale, claret, curaçao, Cyprus, Vermouth, cheese, pickles, sardines, Worcester sauce, blacking, biscuits, preserved meats, candles, cigars, matches, sugar, salt, stationery, fire-works, jams, and patent medicines can all be bought at one fell swoop — the native cook’s shop exhaling savory perfumes of Kebabs and lentil soup, and presided over by an Abyssinian Soyer blacker than the blackest historical personage ever was painted — the surging, elbowing, clamorous crowd — the donkeys, the camels, the street-cries, the chatter, the dust, the flies, the fleas, and the dogs, all put us in mind of the poorer quarters of Cairo.

The passages that are devoted to Egyptian ruins could almost be called worshipful. Edwards gives us a clear-eyed vision of lofty pillars and serene colossi rising twenty-five, forty, fifty, seventy-five  feet in the air. Stripes of color often as brilliant as the day they were painted: golden stars studding a pure cobalt sky, crimson, ultramarine, olive green. Murals of a king’s everyday life as it was lived two, or three, or six thousand years ago; time unrolling like a scroll. Hieroglyphics that explain that businesslike world, its taxes, its foremen, its serfs, and most of all, its powerful vision of the gods and the afterlife — a vision that could call forth creations that we still wonder at today. She calls that world forth with knowledge, skill, beauty, and reverence.

But when it comes to present-day Egypt (or rather, Egypt of 1877, under British rule) Edwards is not so kind. Her casual, cheerful, and absolutely universal racism is more than troubling, and it pervades every chapter:

The fact is, however, that the fellâh is half a savage. Notwithstanding his mendacity (and it must be owned that he is the most brilliant liar under heaven), he remains a singularly transparent piece of humanity, easily amused, easily deceived, easily angered, easily pacified. He steals a little, cheats a little lies a great deal; but on the other hand he is patient, hospitable, affectionate, trustful. He suspects no malice and bears none. He commits no great crimes. He is incapable of revenge.

Though I will say that she is at least an equal opportunity racist (at one point she refers to the people of Minieh as “the most unappeasable beggars out of Ireland”) it is unpleasant, to say the least, to read her unflappable judgments of Arabs (simple, cheats, liars) Nubians (hideous savages) modern Egyptians (happy savages) Abyssinians (handsome, but savages) and so forth. There is one truly horrible incident in which one of Edwards’s travel companions accidentally (non-fatally) shoots an Egyptian child instead of a pheasant, and then the entire nearby village — most of them innocent — is punished (only mildly, at the companion’s request) for shouting and throwing stones at him afterward. The companion, who is not so much as reprimanded for shooting near a village, wants the villagers to know that they must “respect travelers,” and the villagers weep with relief that the punishment is not worse. The scene is presented as local color, but it made me feel rather sick. While of course Edwards was a product of her own imperialist and colonialist age, it’s important to remember that a number of people writing at this precise time were anti-imperialist, and had a strong sense of others — whatever their race — as individual human beings with real inner lives.

I had genuinely mixed feelings about this book. I truly enjoyed the trip up the Nile (indeed, I kept my computer near me for maps and photos) and admired Amelia Edwards for her courage, dash, and aplomb in the face of what was quite a dangerous voyage. I also appreciated her vision for the nascent study of Egyptology, since without her and people like her, it’s likely we would have little or nothing left to see. Yet the infuriating insistence that anyone not British deserved their national fate, was hard for me to swallow. She couldn’t see the irony in passionately defending Egyptian ruins from plunder, and at the same time praising the British Museum, or indeed having a collection of her own to take home. She couldn’t condemn a system that prized an English shooter over an Egyptian victim. She couldn’t see the absurdity in criticizing ancient Egyptian taste! Still, overall, this book was worth reading, and it is certainly a piece of its time borne forth in aspic.

Incidentally, I think Amelia Edwards was the inspiration for Amelia Peabody, a series I haven’t read. I hear I should!

This entry was posted in Classics, Nonfiction, Travel/ Exploration. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to A Thousand Miles Up the Nile

  1. She sounds ghastly but I suspect not untypical of wealthy European travellers in Egypt at the time (Flaubert’s diaries reveal an even worse side to their holidays). Certainly not all her contemporaries felt like this, just think of the Prime Minister Gladstone, who was very much an anti-imperialist, or David Livingstone who fought to end the slave trade in Africa some decades before.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, and indeed it’s clear that Edwards was anti-slavery as well. She and her companions inquired into the slave trade in Egypt and were told it didn’t exist, but they found that it did, sub rosa, and were suitably appalled.

  2. Elle says:

    Sounds fascinating. It’s so easy for people to fetishize the ancient manifestations of a culture whose current existence they patronize. Bizarre. (Also, this reminded me a bit of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, where she’s both anti-slavery and breathtakingly racist. It’s a salutary reminder that people can hold all sorts of seemingly contradictory opinions and values, and that just because you’re against one thing doesn’t mean you’re universally right or worth emulating.)

    • Jenny says:

      Very true! And I agree with you about its being salutary. It’s important to remember that all these things exist in tension with each other; human beings are never binary.

  3. Lisa says:

    I have been a fan of Amelia Peabody Emerson for many, many years. I was so excited to learn about this book, and to find a copy. But I set it down after a few chapters, just worn out by the casual racism, and I’ve been reluctant to pick it up again. I think I might enjoy reading about the Victorian travelers, more than reading their actual travelogues.

    I think you would enjoy the later Amelia!

    • Jenny says:

      I thought for a while about putting it down, too, Lisa, but I’m glad I persisted. The Egyptian exploration was so fascinating, and she had so many interesting things to say about the country at that time. I may pick up the first of the Amelia Peabody series sometime soon!

  4. That’s the price we pay for progress! We can’t be more enlightened today without having been less enlightened in the past: the two statements are equivalent. Amelia Edwards was genuinely enlightened and humane by the standards of her day.

    “The past is a different country,” and perhaps we should extend our tolerance to past cultures that we claim, perhaps with some inaccuracy, as our own.


    • Jenny says:

      You’re quite right that we should understand the past on its own terms, but if we’re to use that phrase that the past is a different country, we can’t understand it as monocultural. Mark Twain was writing at almost precisely the same time as Edwards; his Innocents Abroad gives a pretty different picture of what you should get from travel among “savages.” There were plenty of other writers (and, as Alistair points out, politicians) who were anti-imperialist and pro-civil rights, as well. While of course I expect authors to be the products of their own age, it is also reasonable to see that age broadly, and to make comparisons.

  5. Karen K. says:

    Great review — she sounds both fascinating and repulsive. It’s so hard to deal with hypocrisy in writers, and it’s good to know that there are other famous travelers who were less racist like Livingstone.

    • Jenny says:

      She was certainly fascinating! I think she would have to be more self-aware to be a hypocrite, exactly. But it’s something that affected my reading, so I thought I should mention it. It really pervaded the book.

  6. Wow, the story about killing an Egyptian child is absolutely awful. Did she say how the person who killed the kid felt about it? Surely even if you thought of the Egyptians as lesser humans, you’d still have to feel horrible about killing a child!

    Anyway. Maybe I will read this sometime. I know Amelia Edwards was an inspiration for Amelia Peabody, and I do looooove those books. They’re not deathless literature or anything, but they’re comfort reads and a lot of fun.

Leave your comment here, and feel free to respond to others' comments. We enjoy a lively conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.